Saturday, 27 February 2016

Faith from a distance

“But say the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:7)

The Romans haunt the pages of the New Testament. And every centurion mentioned was a man of character (see Matthew 27:54, Acts 10:1; 23:17; 22:26; 24:23; 27:43). This Roman ‘outsider’ had built a synagogue for the Jews in Capernaum (Luke 7:5).

For a military represenative of the occupying Roman empire to have the warm sympathy of the local Jews - when his servant was so desperately ill - must have been virtually unheard-of. Yet the archaeological confirmation of this mutual regard can be seen today in the remains of that first-century synagogue. For into one of the slabs of stone, lying on Capernaum’s beach is carved what would then have been the normally-hated eagle insignia of the Roman tenth legion!

Matthew 8 records the centurion’s plea that Jesus come and heal his sick servant, but it is Luke’s account that fills out Matthew’s ‘compressed’ story by indicating that it was the friendly Jews who physically ‘came’ to Jesus in the name of this modest man. Evidently the centurion felt not ‘worthy’ to come in person (v.7); it seems that he never actually met Jesus. He had only ‘heard’ of Him (v. 3). Here was faith - awakened, exerted and rewarded - from a distance! Healing resulted.

The centurion - himself a man of authority – had recognised from what he had heard that Jesus was a Man who was in command…. of everything – and he acted accordingly. Never in Israel - said Jesus - had He met with such faith. Here was a model test-case, a forerunner of many ‘outsiders’ from east and west who would one day sit at table in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:11); people who have not seen and yet have believed!

We don’t even know the centurion’s name; we have to be content with just his ‘fingerprint’ on that slab of stone, in Capernaum’s historic ruins.


Friday, 19 February 2016

“I will follow you, but…”

As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go” (Luke 9:57)

Here is a ‘Discipleship’ sentence of urgency for the Church season of Lent. Charles John Ellicott wrote, “There is, so to speak, a ‘NOW’ running through the ages. For each church and nation, for each individual soul, there is a golden present which may never again recur.”

This was such a moment in Luke’s Gospel chapter 9. So much had already happened! Up came three prospective recruits for Jesus. Seemingly none of them would make it. .

1. An example of hasty discipleship.
“Wherever you go” – here is an unsolicited commitment! Matthew 8:19 tells us that he was a devout intellectual - a teacher of the Law. Better, surely than Levi the grubby taxman, or Peter the non-academic fisherman? But no – Jesus recognises in this man a touch of recklessness… or of the bandwagon? But there’s to be no snug comfort zone for the Son of Man (v.58). Think again!

2. An example of conditional discipleship.
“First let me go and bury my father” (v.59). It sounds reasonable…. but this typical middle-east phraseology could well have born the implication that the father wasn’t dead yet! Lesson: You can’t choose the moment or convenient circumstance to decide for Christ; it will never be convenient. Think again!

3. An example of hesitant discipleship. “Let me say Goodbye to my family!” (v.61). Jesus replied that no one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Did He detect compromise in this response, a desire to ‘look back’ before making the great Decision?

Think again! – for Love’s sake…. and for Truth’s sake. The best reason for becoming a disciple is that Christ – and Christianity – are true!


Sunday, 14 February 2016

In Blood and Fire

'Village life in Israel ceased, ceased until I, Deborah, arose, arose a mother in Israel'
(Judges 5:7)

Here is the triumphant ballad of Deborah, Israel’s Iron Lady, 1,200 BC.  She’d bossed King Barak into line with his troops; the Canaanites were smashed – their General Sisera with a tent-peg through his head.  Ah, it’s not a story for the squeamish – though I was told it when I was five.

If the politically-correct in our hothouse civilisation can’t cope with the Bible’s earthy moments, those flamboyant women of history can educate them – the German prophetess Velleda!  The British Queen Boudicca!  The French peasant girl Joan of Arc!  The Salvation Army evangelist Kate Booth, who signed her letters, “Yours ever in blood and fire…!”

Stage one – Aspiration.   The oppressed Israelites cried out for relief from the Canaanites (4:3). Nothing can happen until there is such a desire; it was Deborah’s arrival that gave them hope.

Stage two – Inspiration.  Beliefs are always more powerful than tanks.  Enter Deborah – a rude instrument for a rude age.  She gets King Barak on his mobile: “Come on; mobilise the troops; leave the rest to me!”  Barak responds with a piteous bleat (4. 8) “Oh, very well; but I’ll only go if you go!”

Stage three – Perspiration.  Yes, someone had to get up and do something!  The River Kishon and the muddy plain of Megiddo were the undoing of the Canaanites’ 900 chariots of iron - and a woman called Jael was the undoing of General Sisera.  Peace held for the next forty years.

Ultimately it’s kill or cure, life or death, heaven or hell.  Deborah’s prayer-ballad says it all – in blood and fire.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Look – and Live!

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live”    (Numbers 21:8)

The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land – and grumbling began.  The evangelist John Wesley once spoke of grumblers as ‘tearing the flesh from my bones.’  In Numbers 21 the grumbling coincided with the onset of venomous snakes – and it was a judgment.  Moses prays for mercy, and the divine cure is given.  If it was serpents that caused the problem, then let the antidote be…. a serpent.  Perhaps it was something of the principle that ‘like cures like.’

The connection would also have been made in people’s minds that in the beginning it was the Serpent, Satan, that brought the DEATH PRINCIPLE into our human story.  But then here is also the FAITH PRINCIPLE.  ‘Fasten your gaze upon God’s remedy – and you will live!’  Third, there is the SALVATION PRINCIPLE.  ‘Look and be saved.’

Certainly the bronze snake was only an emblem.  In the case of the skin-disease of Naaman (2 Kings 5) he had only to wash in the Jordan to be delivered.  ‘Go and wash!’  Here it is ‘Look – and live!’

The reality beyond these Old Testament shadowings of God’s saving power for the human race is found in the dying love of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world.  As He himself declared, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14,15).  So ‘believing’ is equivalent to ‘looking.’

And ‘whoever’ must surely include you….